The Green Sheet Online Edition
January 12, 2009 • Issue 09:01:01
A new outlook for the unbanked
With check writing declining and electronic payments surging, it seems counterintuitive that prepaid processor and program manager FirstView LLC is launching a check product for unbanked consumers. But the strategy makes sense when Cherie M. Fuzzell, President and Chief Executive Officer of FirstView, explains it.
Fuzzell said the patent-pending service allows cardholders of Espree prepaid debit cards to write personalized Espree checks. The open loop, MasterCard Worldwide-branded Espree cards are used by employers as payroll cards for unbanked workers. From employers' general payroll accounts, wages are loaded onto Espree cards.
Although the cards are not tied to traditional demand deposit checking or savings accounts, cardholders can buy products and services in face to face retail environments or online, just like users of traditional credit or debit cards. But payroll cards cannot be used for every type of payment.
The indestructible paper check
Despite the decrease in check usage, Fuzzell pointed out that everyone - banked and unbanked alike - pull out checkbooks, on average, two to three times a month. Fuzzell gave an example of who would use an Espree check.
"We have one account holder whose mortgage is over a $1,000 a month," she said. "And with his card product, he can only withdraw a $1,000 a day at an ATM. So he has to go the ATM for two consecutive days and then get a money order to pay his mortgage.
"So we thought about this guy, and we said, 'How can we solve his problem?' And that's what the Espree checks are intended to do."
Espree account holders receive personalized checks. When a user wants to pay with a check, the user calls into an interactive voice response (IVR) service where his or her identity is authenticated.
Then the user enters the Espree check number, the check amount and speaks the name of the check recipient into the phone (the name is then saved as a digital audio file). Finally, the user receives an authorization number to be written on the check.
"And then they can use that check just like any of us use checks - pay rent, send money to school for a field trip, to engage in the activities that the regular payroll card doesn't enable them to do," Fuzzell said. "It really brings them into the financial mainstream of banking because, if you can't write a check, you're still in large measure unbanked."
FirstView has incorporated fraud prevention controls into the system. If Espree checks are invalid, checks are not bounced (a time-consuming and costly process accompanied by inherent delays), the checks are simply rejected at that time.
Another control happens on the payee end. Payees can dial into the IVR system, enter the authorization code on the check and FirstView plays back the payee's name - via the digitally saved waveform audio format files - to verify checks were supposed to be written to them.
A balanced view
Fuzzell considers Espree checks a value added service that "rounds out" the Espree card program. It's less expensive and more convenient than money orders - Espree users don't have to journey to money order businesses or pay the often exorbitant fees, she noted. In addition to being an Espree card issuer, Atlanta-based FirstView is a third-party processor and ISO (sponsored by Metabank).
In that capacity, FirstView offers a bill payment processing system called FirstPoynt. It is an online payment engine utilizing the automated clearing house to serve the needs of small to mid-sized businesses.
"It allows billers to take payments online or over the IVR, or through a costumer service rep," Fuzzell said. "And it allows those billing customers to make payments with credit cards, debit cards, e-checks. We are certified - or in the process of certifying - to most of the major processors." Global Payments Inc., TSYS Acquiring Solutions and Chase Paymentech LLC top that list.
Founded in 2005 by Chairman Joseph Meyer, FirstView is looking to expand its reseller channels to offer First View's products and services to more consumers and merchants. Interested ISOs and merchant level salespeople can contact Al Williams, Executive Vice President of Sales and Marketing, at 404-806-7244, ext. 111 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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